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Macaulay: Pioneer of India’s Modernization
By Zareer Masani,
Random House, Rs 450

Zareer Masani’s immensely readable biography of Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay comes at this time of significant policy focus on quality in state-funded education and amidst a healthy public discourse on the uses of English as a skill, at par with basic literacy, numeracy and IT skills.

Digging deep into contemporary historical records, letters, parliamentary proceedings and speeches, and East India Company documents, Masani sets out to restore and repair Macaulay’s rather edgy reputation in India and abroad. Rather cheekily, the book jacket says, “If you’re an Indian reading this book in English, it’s probably because of Thomas Macaulay.”

The focus of the biography in the first half is very much on historical ephemera, with Masani trying to prepare the ground for the more contentious issues and debates, which are indeed Macaulay’s legacy not just to the Indian but also to much of world history. A child prodigy egged on by his “high-minded social reformer” father, Zachary, Macaulay’s remarkable intellectual progress in the early years was somewhat scarred by his odd looks. The historian Thomas Carlyle, while acknowledging his intellectual brilliance, could not help but stick in the cruel words: “intrinsically common… a short squat thickset man of vulgar appearance.”

Observations like these quite literally make the biography a rounded one, but, at the same time, one gets the feeling that sometimes Masani has got carried away by such trivia. The narrative keeps coming back to Macaulay’s appearance a few time times too many.

Macaulay remained a bachelor all his life and Masani has it on the good authority of Lytton Strachey that this may have something to do with his physical appearance. And he remained unnaturally close to two of his five sisters, Margaret and Hannah, and his friend, Thomas Flower Ellis (“there is no evidence that their friendship was sexual”). He emotionally blackmailed Hannah to accompany with him to India and went through emotional turmoil when she got married to Charles Trevelyan and eventually prevailed upon the couple to stay at his official residence in Calcutta (the site where the Bengal Club stands today).

Justifiably, Masani lavishes most of his attention on Macaulay’s India years as the commissioner of the Board of Control, which managed the affairs of the country on behalf of the Crown, and also as a law member of the Supreme Court, largely as a reward for his contribution on the floor of the parliament in pushing through the 1832 Reform Act. Along the way, Masani painstakingly puts together the making of Macaulay as a Utilitarian thinker and a Whig ideologue.

The greatest strengths of this biography are in viewing the achievements of Macaulay as a whole (and not isolating the education minutes or the Indian Penal Code for separate analysis) and then framing these feats in the context of their times as well as the subject’s own considerable prejudices.

Masani is perhaps the first to link the education minutes to Macaulay’s support for the so-called Black Act, the drafting of the Indian Penal Code, the opening up of the Civil Services to Indians selected on merit and making the explicit case that they were all part of one intellectual project that linked education to rights to citizenship.

The biography shows Macaulay both as a product of the social churning that allowed his spectacular rise from an ordinary middle class background to the very pinnacle of Victorian society and as an agent catalysing and accelerating that very change. The book does justice to a complex and contrarian character of dazzling intellectual honesty. One senses an almost Miltonic contest in Macaulay’s mind as he wrestled with his own visceral reaction to the Indian Mutiny and his thoughts on vengeance while at the same time acknowledging that they were at complete odds with his own sense of justice: “Having brought ourselves to exult in the misery of the guilty, shall we not feel less sympathy for the sufferings of the innocents?”

Masani has done such a clean and elegant job of resurrecting the ghost of Macaulay, exorcising it of the demonic reputation it has among chroniclers of colonialism, and rehabilitating him in Indian history.